Most of the Right Moves

Coach Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves' turnaround

Someday Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders will be assessed a technical foul for impeding a referee or opposing player with his courtside gyrations. During Wolves home games, Saunders, who almost never sits, frequently strays onto the edge of the playing surface while prancing along the sideline from his team's bench to center court. After more than five years, fans have become familiar with his array of antics: the cupped-handed exhortations and whirling arm movements; the spin-and-wince after a turnover or ill-advised shot; the balled-up crouch and sideways scuttle when he feels the ref has blown a call; and, most common, the reflexive, Tourette's-like lurch of the neck, an internal tic akin to the cough of a car engine craving more fuel.

Saunders's exuberance is in sync with the personality of his youthfully passionate team, which, given its inexperience and the loss of two all-stars (Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury) over the past fifteen months, remains a fragile, dangerously inconsistent bunch. Saunders has done a masterful job of coaching them thus far this season, rebuilding their confidence after an eight-game losing streak that included devastating defeats by such putrid opponents as the Clippers and Golden State. Less than two weeks after the streak ended, the Wolves improbably became the NBA's best team during the month of January, compiling a 12-3 mark that included eight victories over opponents with winning records. By the end of February, injuries and inabilities had compelled Saunders to deploy eleven different starting lineups, yet the Wolves' 32-24 record was the best 56-game start in the history of the franchise--ahead of the pace set by the 1997-98 squad that featured Googs, Marbury, and Kevin Garnett.

Saunders has engineered this unprecedented success by forging an unabashedly close relationship with his players that in turn has fostered an uncommonly synergistic chemistry among the troops both in the locker room and on the court. Sure, it helps that the contract distractions of Marbury and Googs are gone (not to mention the previous departures of congenital assholes Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider). And a coach couldn't ask for a better tone-setting tandem than Garnett and Sam Mitchell to help him instill character in a team. But listening to the affection and respect engendered by Saunders from both players, it's clear that he's more than a passive beneficiary of the situation.

"Flip and I definitely have a unique relationship that I value a great deal. It's more than player-coach; it's human beings. In this vast business of the NBA, it's different, and I treat it as something special," says Garnett, who has been known to call Saunders, a fellow insomniac when the team is losing, at four in the morning just to chat.

"Flip is demanding, but he's fair. If you've got a problem with something he does, you can go into his office and talk to him and he won't make you feel intimidated or uneasy," Mitchell adds. "What guys like about Flip is that, first, he's a good guy and you know this--you'd have to be stupid to try and screw him. You understand there is a line you can't cross with Flip because he is fair. I tell guys all the time, 'If you can't come to the Timberwolves and play for Flip Saunders, you're going to have trouble in this league.'

"I think the thing I respect about him the most is that he does care about players," Mitchell continues. "I've been around coaches who say they care but who just worry about themselves and two or three individuals. But Flip cares about the twelfth man on this team as much as the number-one guy. And I want to win even more because of that. I think it would be really nice if we could win the Midwest Division, because it would be a big feather in his cap--to go from the worst team in basketball to the division champion in the short time he has been here."

Other players offer similar testimonials. Wally Szczerbiak talks about how Saunders, a fellow Ukrainian, took him and his fiancée out for pierogi to get acquainted. Malik Sealy notes that Saunders is one of the few coaches he has had who don't keep harping on past mistakes and allow players to occasionally improvise during set plays and take a freelance jump shot. Says Dean Garrett, who ranks eleventh on the team in minutes played this year: "He can sit there and talk to you as a coach or he can talk to you as a friend. Not a lot of coaches can do that, and he can do it with everybody. That's really important--to know him from another aspect. We don't look at him and think, Oh, he's just a coach, and treat him that way. No, he's also a friend. But he has the separation when he needs it because he has the respect of everybody."

Saunders says he has always tried to be a player's coach. "When I was in the [minor league] CBA, my wife used to cook a big dinner and we'd invite the entire team over every couple of weeks," he recounts at a recent Saturday-afternoon practice. "We'd do it here, but there are too many games. But the guys are having pizza today--KG said it might be a good idea after practice and I told him to go get some.

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